September 14, 2008

Heroics From the Unluckiest Hotel on Earth

By Matthew Bell

We've heard almost all the stories before, but 9/11 still offers extraordinary vignettes Television The 9/11 Hotel CHANNEL 4 Cutting Edge: The 9/11 Faker CHANNEL 4 Legends: Humphrey Lyttelton BBC4

Hotels are fertile ground for story-tellers. Take any hotel on any given day and you've got a ready-assembled cast of random characters, momentarily living under one roof. Marking the anniversary of 9/11, Channel 4 had the idea to tell the story of the Marriott Hotel, which used to be wedged between the twin towers, on that morning in 2001. The 9/11 Hotel was a remarkable story.

Among the 940 guests checked in was a novelist writing about a terrorist attack on New York. Spooky? Or is it just the law of probability, or of mass publishing, that there is at any given time a novelist unwittingly fictionalising events around him? Then there was the man with the job interview. He set off wearing a canary- yellow tie, advised by his sister to wear something bright to create an impression. Half an hour later he would look up to see the second plane crash into the South Tower. His sister and her four-year-old daughter were on board.

But all that was seven years ago: is there anything new to learn about 9/11? Unless you follow the internet conspiracy theories, which make for compulsive reading, the answer is no. But just as we never tire of hearing of heroics from the Somme, the small vignettes of human behaviour that trickle out of 9/11 are rarely completely without interest. One guest told how, having lost sight of her husband on fleeing the building, she seized a piece of nylon rope and bound herself to her daughter. The husband survived, although they subsequently divorced, but the rope she still treasures.

I had forgotten about the earlier terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, when a lorry packed with explosives damaged much of the basement. Thanks to subsequent strengthening work on the building, a portion of the hotel remained standing after 9/11, saving several lives. One of these was the splendidly pompous Frank, a walrussy New York lawyer. He recalled hearing a bang as he shaved but, in Titanic fashion, carried on with his toilet. As papers fluttered past the window he rationalised to himself: "This has nothing to do with me. I'm just going about my day." Later, as fire alarms sounded, he mused, "I wonder if I can get a bellboy to come up."

Among survivors' stories there is, apparently, a "hierarchy of suffering", as one put it. Top of the tree was Tania Head, the subject of Cutting Edge: The 9/11 Faker, the first in a new series of investigations from Channel 4. Head was supposedly one of only 19 people to have survived from the floors at or above the level at which the plane hit the South Tower, and, worse, had lost her fiance in the North Tower. She set up the World Trade Center Survivors' Network, which grew to 500 members, and soon became a 9/11 celebrity, enjoying highly publicised meetings with Rudi Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

Alas, last year she was exposed as a fantasist, who hadn't even been in New York on the day of the attacks. The poor woman clearly had a bad case of Munchausen by proxy, or in those pre-Big Brother days, had simply seized the opportunity, no matter how perverted, for fame. The programme-makers had no shortage of betrayed fellow survivors queuing up to give Head a bashing, but it might have been more interesting to track her down and find out what cuckoo-land the dear loon is living in now.

I wonder what Humphrey Lyttelton would have made of her. Legends, BBC4's tribute to the late jazz legend on Friday, gave the impression that Humph would forgive anybody anything. Despite his upbringing (Eton and the Guards, as we were frequently told) or perhaps because of it, Humph had a keen sense of social injustice, according to his son Stephen. Hence his affinity with jazz - music born of the downtrodden - and his lifelong support for Labour. Among tributes from colleagues, Jools Holland said he had Humph to thank for his life: the story goes he was conceived after his parents had been to one of Humph's livelier gigs. Jools defied anyone to say a bad word about him. Only his sister got near, recalling the teenage jazz-obsessive pinching her favourite record, which, it being the 1940s, he melted down in order to re-groove as the latest Nat Gonella album. Cartoonist, trumpeter, dedicated family man - Humph was a polymath - but it will be for his gags not his gigs that most will remember him. Riffing with words as he did with music, he would have audiences on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue weeping over the most basic schoolboy jokes. Who else could raise a laugh by noting that stratagem is mega tarts spelt backwards?

Hermione Eyre is away

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